When they announced before the game that Candace Parker wasn't going to play due to personal reasons (sick child?) the entire complexion changed. It's like playing the Lakers without Kobe or the Spurs without Duncan. Sure, they are still good teams but it's just not the same.
Then the Mercury come out using far more of the rover zone defense then we've seen all year and the Sparks pound the ball inside to Lisa Leslie who was left in isolation against Tangela Smith. In 6:22 she was 7 for 7 for 15 points and the Sparks jumped out to a 34 - 19 advantage in the first quarter.
I am not sure if Coach Gaines was thinking that he would try and bait the Sparks into a high scoring game or if he wanted to see if he could tire Leslie out early by giving her so many looks but the rope-a-dope seemed like it was going to back fire as the Sparks lead by 18 points at one point.
The Mercury changed things up on the defensive end when DeWanna Bonner and Nicole Ohlde came in for Tangela Smith and Le'Coe Willingham. DB and Nicole combined for 6 rebounds in the quarter compared to Smith and Willingham who had 1. Combined. Even more important, Bonner's activity and length on defense disrupted the Sparks ball movement and Ohlde was able to do a much better job forcing Leslie out of position and protecting the rim.
Leslie played 8 minute in this quarter and had no points on only 2 attempts. The Sparks went from 65% shooting in the first period to 25% in the second as the lane became congested and they settled for outside shots. The Mercury didn't have a great offensive period but were about the hold LA to 13 points and put up 23 of their own on 33% shooting. That cut the lead to 5 at the half and the Mercury were right back in it.
The Mercury got back in this game on the defensive end.
Phoenix went on to outscore LA by 11 points in the 3rd and opened up a 10 point lead in the fourth. The Sparks cut that to 3 with 3 minutes left before the Cappie closed it out to take the win 98-90.
Penny Taylor had her best game yet in the Mercury uniform this season with 17 points and 5 rebounds. She was active on the glass and was much more in the flow of the offense. The Sparks without Candace Parker are still a good defensive team with long and mobile roll players but they simply lacked the fire power to keep up and they weren't able to stop the Mercury attack which came from all over the court.
Outside of that first quarter where the defense was horrible (and I have to look to Coach Gaines for not doubling Leslie sooner) the Mercury looked as good as they have in a couple of weeks.
The offense clicked a lot better and most important the team out rebounded the league's best rebounding team by 42-30. Bonner with 9 and Ohlde with 5 were big off the bench but the real difference was the activity of the guards and wing players. Cappie, Diana, Penny and Temeka all had at least 4 each and they combined for 21 of the teams 42 total. Temeka hit some timely shots her 14 points and 6 assists where big. Most important, she and Cappie seemed to be back on the same page playing off each other like we saw early in the season.
If the Mercury are controlling the glass like that and getting better interior defense with Nicole and DB on the floor, this team is nearly impossible to beat.
I called this a must win game and predicted that the winner of this one would come out of the West. Without Parker, I am reneging on that prediction but there's no question that a loss would have been hard on Phoenix. It was a solid win and now the team needs to continue to build on the progress they showed in this game.
Next up is the Connecticut Sun at home on Saturday. Only three more home games left until the playoffs. I'll be there and I'm bringing some friends along with my wife and daughter.